Christmas, Pagan Romans and Frodo Baggins

The Saturnalia

This is an article from the archives…worth reading again for those who think the date of Christmas is a carry over from pagan Roman holidays.

One of the old chestnusts about Christmas (and I don’t mean the type roasting on the open fire) is the charge brought by old fashioned Protestants and new fashioned atheists that Catholicism is old paganism dressed up in new clothes. These critics of Catholicism notice similarities between certain Christian customs and the old religion and claim cynically that Christianity is no more than paganism re visited.

One of their favorite examples is the celebration of Christmas. These theological scrooges say the date of Christmas as well as the trappings like mistetoe, gift giving and Christmas trees are all pagan customs warmed up and served again like so many religious left overs. The story goes like this: “The Romans had this ancient feast called the Saturnalia. From December 17-23 they partied with feasting and foolishness of all sorts. When the Emporer and his mother converted to the Christian faith people felt under pressure to convert to Christianity. However, they knew hoi polloi wouldn’t want to give up their favorite Saturnalia festival– so the Christians came up with a solution. Instead of celebrating the god Saturn in the bleak mid winter, they would celebrate the birth of Christ.

It all sounds plausible enough, but like the solution to a murder mystery–the obvious answer is rarely the right one. The first objection to the idea that Christmas is simply an adopted pagan festival is the simple fact that the early Christians were adamantly opposed to paganism in all its forms. It’s really simple. Read More



  • Becky Barnes

    Hmmm … just tried to post a comment, but it must have gone somewhere into cyberspace limbo. Well, to repeat what you probably didn’t get, this article was truly fascinating and thoroughly researched. I have never heard or read anything that explained so clearly the facets of pagan and Christian celebrations. Now I’ll know what to say when the same old tired arguments begin regarding Christianity being simply an offshoot of paganism. I love the tie-in with the Annunciation — and of course, throwing Frodo into this discussion was inspired! Some time when you have a chance, come and visit my Catholic blog, Journey of a 21st Century Catholic, website given above. I’d love to meet and share with others who write about the Catholic faith. Your site is going up on my favorite blog list!

  • Matt

    Thank you for this article, Fr; it was very interesting and has inspired me to do some more study on the topic

  • Vision_From_Afar

    While I concede the point about the date, and the conflicting accounts of Sol Invictus, you cannot possibly (and don’t) argue about evergreen trees, mistletoe, and gift-giving being pagan, because they are. Once the Christians were solidly in power in Rome and began expanding the religion to the “barbarians” on the borders, all bets of “anything pagan is demonic” were off.
    From Biblical :
    “From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings.”

  • Kay

    Aside from your own convenience in not invalidating your own argument, is there a reason you chose to completely exclude Yule and the traditional Northern European indigenous faiths? Considering the tree is in your living room because they were forced to hide it there after their religion was outlawed? Christmas is Christ’s Mass. Celebrate it. Don’t pretend it was the first or only celebration to occur in December, or that it did not absorb the traditions of other holy days from other faiths.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      The post is not a complete analysis of Christmas traditions. Certain pagan traditions and customs were adopted by Christians and I don’t have a problem with that. The post was simply making the point that the date of Christmas was not adapted by the early church from the Roman Saturnalia.